Movie Review: 'Prisoners' (2013)

Aaron Guzikowski’s script is unsettling, dark and eerie, a boldly nuanced study in vigilantism, violence as a means to an end and how far someone is willing to go in the pursuit of following the faith of their convictions.

“Prisoners” delves into the disturbing disappearance of two young girls on Thanksgiving Day. A creepy van had been sighted earlier in the day, the girls wanting to play around it. Within an instant the quiet lives of a quaint suburb are upended and every event before and after the kidnapping is met with sinister suspicions and thrust under microscopic scrutiny.

Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is a father on a mission and not buying the police’s brush off of his suspicions concerning Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a man that is clearly disturbed. Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is on the hunt with his attention split between finding the girls, amid his growing reservations with Keller. What sets “Prisoners” apart is the way it brings such a distinct feeling of cold reality into expertly dreary focus by staying short on character details. 

The audience is walking into the lives of these people just as the unthinkable occurs. Everything that happens from this point is discovered in a natural fashion. There’s no phony rundown of the background for every character, no elaborate detailing or answer given to every question posed throughout its run time, concerning every subtle revelation.

The film provokes curiosity, engaging the audience in a probing analysis of why, who and how. In the arena of mystery, it captivates on multiple levels. 

Denis Villeneuve’s taut direction is gripping and seamlessly haunting. The subject matter being so grim, it becomes increasingly difficult to watch the film’s story unfold. The raw reality that Villeneuve captures, touches on the onslaught of similar stories that have played out on 24/7 cable news channels.

“Prisoners” presents with a queasy subtext that does not allow for the typical hope that springs from similar fare. It is unflinching and drives viewers towards one of the most uncertain conclusions in recent memory. This isn’t a run-of-the-mill thriller and that is due to the direction and gritty cinematography. 

Top notch performances push the film into an even more profound frontier. Hugh Jackman is transformational as the desperate Keller. His at times stoic restraint made all the more painful by a crumbling emotional state, which is refocused by a fierce internal resolve that allows him to do the civilly unthinkable.

Jackman lets Keller’s anguish hang on his every facial expression, or lack thereof and in the third act; he delivers one of the finest turns of his career, in a sobering moment that is searing in its gravity.

Jake Gyllenhaal is remarkable as the introspective Detective Loki, a role that he imbues with a cold command and interesting physical ticks, which hint at a story all on their own. He utilizes the physicality of Loki to elevate him past a stereotypical detective.

As the dueling leads dazzle, the supporting cast gives the film exemplary depth. Maria Bello is heartbreaking as the outwardly distraught mother and the dependent wife of Keller, offering yet another of her underrated performances.

Viola Davis brings it, in a crucial scene that is strikingly heartfelt as the fellow mother of the missing girls, who faces a grave decision. Paul Dano and Melissa Leo give the film its most unsung edge with turns that keep the audience guessing, engrossed and in Dano’s case, walking the fine line of relevant suspicion.

Where this film achieves its greatest glory is in approaching its characters as grey matter. You will not find a definitive good or bad guy, these people are simply human. Pushed to the brink of life’s harshest dilemmas and praying for forgiveness afterwards.

It is a meditation on faith, both in spirituality and in one’s own self. As their moral center stands in the balance, the film makes no judgments. Whether or not it actually implores its audience to do so is a matter of opinion. 

Certainly after seeing and hearing what they do, one can’t cast stones. No one wants to go to the dark places that beg such disturbing questions of our humanity. These are questions one hopes they are never faced with answering.

When it comes down to it, “Prisoners” is an exploration into our native switch and the measures, an unthinkable event, can cause a person to take. Prepare to be taken prisoner, for its moral implications will linger, long after the credits roll. Rating: 8.5/10